- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

A decade of experimenting with charter schools and voucher programs has not met proponents' highest expectations nor opponents' most dire predictions, says a new book by a Rand research team.

Based on what little is known, "targeted voucher programs may produce discrete benefits," without "the negative consequences voucher opponents fear," said researchers Brian P. Gill, P. Michael Timpane, Dominic J. Brewer and Karen E. Ross.

Studies of charter schools show mixed results but "signs of promise," they said.

This cannot yet translate into either an endorsement or rejection of school choice, the researchers said in their book released yesterday, "Rhetoric vs. Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools."

Rather, it points to a need for bigger and better studies on school-choice programs as well as conventional schools, they said.

President Bush made federal vouchers a key part of his education-reform agenda, but the issue has been sidelined for lack of congressional support. However, new funding for charter schools is likely to be included in the education bill, which may be finished this month.

The Rand study's call "to expand the scope and freedom of choice programs … is a welcome conclusion," said Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform. She also applauded the study's suggestion that state leaders make sure many chartering authorities exist and "provide generous funding."

Denise Cardinal, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, disagreed that more studies on vouchers and charter schools were needed.

This may "only distract us from some of the programs that do work," such as smaller class sizes and qualified teachers in every class, she said.

"There is plenty of evidence out there and a lot of it is mentioned in this book that shows vouchers don't work," said Ms. Cardinal, adding that the Rand study also confirmed "a real lack of accountability" in voucher and charter schools.

The three-year Rand study, which was funded by three foundations and Carnegie Corp. of New York, was intended to synthesize existing studies on school choice, said Mr. Brewer.

The most unambiguous finding was that parents of children attending voucher or charter schools were highly satisfied, compared with parents whose children attended public schools.

Beyond that, there weren't a lot of conclusions that could be made, said Mr. Timpane. That doesn't mean school-choice programs have "been tried and failed or tried and succeeded," he said. "It means they have not been tried," or "if they were tried, they've not been well studied."

The Rand study said that:

•Small voucher programs targeted to black children produced modest academic achievements.

•Charter school academic results were mixed some charters outperformed public schools while others performed worse than public schools.

•School-choice programs that set income restrictions were most successful in attracting low-income, minority students.

•Programs that gave income-tax benefits to parents served mostly middle- and high-income students.

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